Aaron Wherry

What does the Wright-Duffy affair tell us about Parliament?

When the PMO edited a Senate committee report

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

As reported last week, the Senate’s internal economy committee has recalled Deloitte’s auditors to discuss their audit of Mike Duffy, this after the RCMP alleged “efforts to withdraw Senator Duffy from the Deloitte audit.” It’s not clear yet whether that meeting with auditors will be conducted in public.

Machinations around the Senate review of Mr. Duffy’s expenses are detailed throughout the RCMP’s filing. At pages 26 and 27, the Senate rules committee and a review of the residency requirements for Senators are discussed, including evidence of a memo sent to the Prime Minister about that particular matter. Elsewhere are references to the internal economy committee’s review of Mr. Duffy’s expenses and the writing of the committee’s report on same. In his conclusions, Cpl. Horton alleges as follows.

While Deloitte did not find wrongdoing on Senator Duffy’s part, the initial draft Senate Report summarizing the findings of Deloitte and the Senate sub-committee was critical of Senator Duffy. Such criticisms by a committee containing a Conservative majority went against the media lines and conditions already agreed upon by the PMO and Senator Duffy. The PMO in turn set out to have the Senate report changed to reflect how they wanted it to appear. The PMO changes to the report were given the Senator Stewart Olsen, who brought them forward. She and Senator Tkachuk, being the committee majority, imposed their will and the will of the PMO on the Senate report.

Here, on that note, is an exchange from Question Period in May.

Thomas Mulcair. Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister keeps referring us back to the whitewashed report of the Senate. Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen is his former press secretary. Did he or did he not ever have any conversations with his former press secretary, Carolyn Stewart Olsen, concerning this affair in the Senate?

Stephen Harper. As a matter of fact, Mr. Speaker, no, I did not, but it is very clear the Senate committee itself has answered those questions. It is the author of its own report. That report mirrors the recommendations of an independent audit conducted on behalf of the Senate; and the government, as a matter of fact, agrees with the recommendations in those reports, which are that the expenses in question are inappropriate and amounts such as that must be repaid to the taxpayers of Canada.

And here is an exchange from two weeks ago.

Thomas Mulcair. Mr. Speaker, who in the PMO was in contact with Senator David Tkachuk or Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen to whitewash the Mike Duffy report? Tkachuk confirmed that he had conversations with the PMO. Who was it with? It was the Prime Minister. He knows it. He can tell us and he has to tell Canadians.

Stephen Harper. Mr. Speaker, once again, as the senator said, the Senate and the Senate committee take responsibility for their own reports. Once again, we find the leader of the NDP trying to cast the net wide, trying to accuse people, who have been accused of nothing, of doing something wrong. In this case, Senator Tkachuk has been clear that the Senate obviously got advice from all kinds of sources, but in the end that committee made its own decisions and its own recommendations.

Those weren’t the only questions raised about the writing of the Senate committee’s report—see here, here, hereherehere and here.

During Question Period on Friday morning, Paul Calandra, the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretary, offered the following explanation.

With respect to reports, I think all members of Parliament, on both sides of the House, are routinely given advice by different people. I note even in committee, when we are reviewing reports, political staff sit behind all of us but, ultimately, it is up to the members of Parliament, it is up to those who are elevated to the Senate, to make the decisions and to stand by the decisions they make. That happens every single day in this place, and I suspect it should happen in the Senate, as well.

At least one Conservative senator suggests this episode should be cause for reflection and another Conservative senator seems pleased that Christopher Montgomery, an official in the office of Marjory LeBreton at the time, asserted the Senate’s independence when the PMO allegedly moved to impose its changes on the Senate report.

After QP on Thursday, Brent Rathgeber—who has some history in this regard—dared suggest that this was more evidence of a lack of distinction between the executive and legislative branches of our government.

This is probably worth a moment or two of reflection.

The Prime Minister has asserted that the Senate is an “independent body” and that, as cited above, the Senate committee has responsibility for its own reports. Those statements were made before this week’s filing from the RCMP, but the suggestion thus could be that whatever his staff was requesting of Conservative Senators, it is still the Conservative Senators who are ultimately responsible for either accepting or refusing those requests. There would be a certain logic to this, but you might also understand why Mr. Montgomery objected. What would have happened if Carolyn Stewart Olsen had refused?

In an email on February 15, Mr. Wright writes that, “If the Rules and Procedures committee doesn’t have the right membership, then the Senate by motion should constitute a special committee that will have the right Senators on board.” What did he mean by “right Senators?” And what power did he have in these matters?

In a memo to the Prime Minister in March, Mr. Harper’s senior staff lamented for the lack of control exerted by the PMO over the affairs of the Senate. To wit.

As the Senate expense issues broke and intensified, your office has increased its interaction with Senators as we try to manage the issues. What we have discovered is that the lines of communication and levers that are available to us on the House side, simply are not in place not he Senate side. It was quickly apparent that Senator LeBreton’s office had little influence over what other Senators did and said, and limited reach into the Senate caucus generally. Accordingly, we engaged directly with Chairs and certain Conservative members of the relevant committee and subcommittees, while trying to keep the Senate Leader’s office informed concurrently. These relationships with other Senators have enabled us to avert some additional problems.

What we see is a laissez-faire system that requires constant direction, supervision, and follow-up from your office to ensure that Government messaging and direction are followed. This problem is not limited to expense and residency issues; there are Senate committee reports that call on the government to lower airport rents, create a national pharmacare-plan, invest heavily in Aboriginal education, and review our tariffs as a way of dealing with the gap in retail prices between Canada and the U.S. We speak with Senators who do not receive talking points or communications advice and who are seldom, if ever, guided on messaging. In managing the Senate’s response to Ann Cools’ privilege motion relating to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, we found that individual Conservative Senators had, or were preparing to, speak to the issue without any advance coordination and without thought to the impact on the Government’s litigation with the PBO. The Senate Leader’s office did work with us to establish the formal Government response to the issue, but did not consider any measures to manage other interventions by Conservative Senators until directed by us to do so. These issues are exacerbated by Senator LeBreton’s repeated approach of reaching agreements with Liberal leadership before coming to your office or her Senate colleagues for consultation. Consistently, Senator LeBreton does not embrace the work of your office to bring communication and direction with the Senate closer to the model that we have with the House Leader and Chief Government Whip.

In his interview with the CBC this weekend, Jason MacDonald, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, was asked whether the Prime Minister’s Office defended “what some are calling a whitewash or the influence of what should be an independent body by the Prime Minister’s Office.” Here was Mr. MacDonald’s response.

“I think there are a couple of points that are important to make. The first is, and I’m sure you’ve seen, Deloitte was asked about the integrity of the audit and they assured everybody that they have measures in place to protect the integrity of the work that they do and that they’re satisfied that the work that they have done has the integrity that’s required of them. In terms of the relationship between PMO and senators, it is not uncommon for—senators are caucus members and they, like any other caucus member, an MP, will work with the Prime Minister’s Office on, whether it’s communications, whether it’s parliamentary issues, and, in fact, we actually saw evidence of that when you looked at Mr. Trudeau who required his senators to vote a certain way on an issue.”

In these circumstances, this seems like a bad answer.

(Mr. Trudeau recommended that Liberal senators abstain from voting on the motions to suspend Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, but the motions were free votes and most Liberal senators voted nay.)

Mr. MacDonald has, conversely, been clear that Mr. Harper would not have approved of Senator Irving Gerstein contacting Deloitte about its audit of Mr. Duffy. So are we to assume that the editing of Senate committee reports by the PMO is a perfectly normal practice, or at least not so far outside accepted norms of executive-legislative relations that it should be considered worrisome?

Accounts vary as to how much influence the PMO exerts, or is able to exert, over the affairs of parliamentary committees, but we’re now up to three questionable events of note in the past year: the handling of Mr. Rathgeber’s private member’s bill, the handling of Mark Warawa’s motion on “gendercide” and the editing of the Senate committee’s report on Mr. Duffy. The precise facts of the first two have not been definitively ascertained—in the case of C-461, Mr. Rathgeber has ventured that the changes to his bill were imposed by the PMO, while the Conservative MP who moved the amendments told me he was not ordered to do so. It’s possible that in the case of Mr. Rathgeber’s bill or Mr. Warawa’s motion, the reality is more nuanced than a straightforward case of PMO dictation—in fact, “PMO control” as a general idea could be overstated or too wildly imagined. But the relative independence of parliamentary committees isn’t quite a new topic either—Samara raised concerns in a report two years ago. And the general independence of parliamentarians and power of party leaders is a longstanding and going concern (highlighted this year by the government side’s apparent blocking of Mr. Warawa from making a statement in the House about his motion).

But let us put the onus on MPs and Senators. How often are they accepting requests of the PMO or their respective leaders’ offices as to how committee business should be handled? How willingly do our parliamentarians accede to any requests of their leaders’ offices? More importantly, what sort of requests are they acceding to? And how much freedom of thought and deed should we expect them to employ? We can’t probably have a party system in which every MP and senator is an entirely independent actor, but how much of the legislature’s business is now run out of the offices of the party leaders, managed by unelected and unaccountable staff?

Should we be moving toward serious committee reform? Perhaps not simply having the House elect committee chairs, as Conservative MP Brad Trost has proposed, but also taking the power to choose committee members away from the party leadership?

At best, Parliament and parliamentarians probably now have an image problem—saddled with a perception, perhaps even an unfair perception, that MPs are at the beck and call of party leaders and the young men in suits who surround those leaders. Even if, in the best case, the amending of Mr. Rathgeber’s bill and the defeat of Mr. Warawa’s motion were perfectly defensible (I think at least the latter is almost definitely not), this is probably still the conversation to have now.

Of this particular matter, of course, it is not quite merely that a committee report was written according to the wishes of the PMO, it is also that those changes were allegedly compelled by a deal between Mr. Duffy and the PMO.

Robert Walsh, the former parliamentary law clerk, suggested on Friday that the machinations between Mr. Duffy, the PMO and others might not rise to the level of criminality, that this might merely be a matter of politics and Parliament. But even if this affair does not amount to charges or a conviction, it still exposes an episode in the inner workings of our Parliament—perhaps a particularly egregious episode, but one that might raise real concerns about how things actually work.

Update, Aug. 18: The following memo was released as evidence in Mike Duffy’s trial.

Memo to PM From Nigel Wright

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